A conversation with Oakland chef and activist Bryant Terry

Bryant Terry

Bryant Terry's latest cookbook, "The Inspired Vegan," hit shelves in late January. Photo by Jennifer Martine.

Oakland-based chef, author and activist Bryant Terry has a way with food. In his newest cookbook, “The Inspired Vegan,” he continues a longtime quest to bring flavor-intense but nutritionally rich eats to a larger audience, and to have a little fun while he’s at it. Terry’s books contain stories from his life, “pairings” for each dish in the form of music and books, and a distinct call to social justice that has become his hallmark. “I want people to exercise their rights and work for justice, but I also want them to have fun, eat good food, and enjoy the pleasures of the table,” he told Oakland North. Read on for Bryant’s take on eating to music, the word vegan, and his signature sweet potato recipe.

Oakland North: You’re originally from Tennessee. How did you end up in Oakland?

Bryant Terry: I was getting my graduate degree in history in New York, and I started learning about the Black Panthers’ survival programs, which addressed basic needs of working class people. There were over 40 programs, but the grocery giveaways and the free breakfast for children programs moved me the most. In every major city they were feeding thousands of young people every morning.

When I thought about that and how food-insecure people in New York were, I realized that the larger social justice movement would be remiss if it did not address food access. I founded a food justice organization called b-healthy, and met Brahm Ahmadi [of People’s Grocery in West Oakland]. He brought me out to Oakland, and within a week, I knew I wanted to live here. Living in Oakland inspires me—it’s clear that some of the most exciting and cutting edge food justice work is happening in the East Bay.

Oakland North: Where did you find inspiration for this book?

Bryant Terry: A lot of the inspiration came from my daughter. My wife was pregnant throughout most of the writing, and I was editing during the first seven weeks of my daughter’s life. I wasn’t feeling really excited about the book until my wife got pregnant, and then I started thinking about the idea of legacy. I felt more connected to the work that I’m doing as a food justice activist, and trying to create a better world for my daughter.

Oakland North: Family is very present in the book, but so is music. Tell me about the connection you see between food and music.

Bryant Terry: I grew up in a very musical family—my mother and all her siblings were all very musical. Whenever we got together, music was central to those gatherings, and I realized how important it is for me to include that part of it in my book. I think what I’m directly responding to in the book is how the industrial food system has made food a commodity, and separated it from art and community and culture. I want my books to mirror how I would love to see people gathering around the table in real life.

Oakland North: Where does our food system need the most work?

Bryant Terry: There’s lot of tendency to blame the individual, and yes, people are responsible for their actions. But they’re also very limited by what’s available to them. If they don’t have access to healthy food, or green space, how can they eat well or exercise? We have to think about making policy changes on a government level, but also policy changes within existing institutions within our communities, like faith-based institutions.

In a lot of black communities, there’s this whole adage of a liquor store on every corner. I always say, “Well, right across the street there’s always a church.” Those churches should focus on addressing the needs of their members. It could be as simple as buying wholesale grains and produce and selling them to the congregation. It could be cooking classes. There are churches across the countries that are leaning in this direction, but I’d like to see more of it.

Oakland North: Do you ever find that people are intimidated by the word “vegan”?

Bryant Terry: Yes, I think that the word can alienate people. Many people have had negative experiences with people who identify as vegan— there’s often finger-wagging, self-righteousness, or they act like the diet police. And a lot of people of color do not embrace this type of diet because they often imagine that vegans are these emaciated white people who live in Berkeley. A lot of my work is illuminating a hidden history—many people of African descent, like Rastafarians, are vegans and eat plant-based diets. Frankly, because of how these words can trigger, I choose not to label myself as a vegan for political reasons.

I don’t think any one diet is perfect for any one of us. I understand the benefits of the vegan life, but I’m not the guy who would say everyone should be vegan. I think each person should embrace a diet for a healthy well-being. What one person might need versus another is dependent on so many different things: bodily constitutions, geographic locations, what our ancestors ate, what season it is. I also encourage people to think about the way they want animals and the environment to be treated. Then, choose a diet based on all those things, rather than choosing the title or the label.

I write my books for everyone, and I want everyone to enjoy this food. The word vegan being in the title frustrates me. While I’m clear that I want the recipes to be animal product free completely, I understand people get tripped up by that, and I feel like I have to work harder to do outreach to people who don’t identify as vegan.

Oakland North: If people had to try one recipe in your new book, which one would you suggest?

Bryant Terry: It depends on what season. I can’t even stress that enough—I think it’s so important for people to eat in season. I think the Earth knows what we need at different times of year. But for this time of year, I’d say the Molasses, Miso and Maple-Candied Sweet Potatoes. My wife is Chinese-American, so it’s an Afro-Asian twist on the traditional candied sweet potato. In fact, I’ll give you the recipe.

Molasses, Miso and Maple-Candied Sweet Potatoes 

sweet potatoes

Molasses, Miso and Maple-Candied Sweet Potatoes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Soundtrack: “Revolution” by Nina Simone from Protest Anthology           

Book: “Conversations in Maine: Exploring our Nation’s Future” by James Boggs and Grace Lee Bogs

Candied Sweet Potatoes is a popular side dish often served on holidays in the South.  This everyday version makes use of two staples of Japanese cooking—tamari (wheat-free soy sauce) and Miso (fermented soy bean paste)—to give this recipe an Asian twist.  Sesame oil seals the deal.  One might imagine the taste of these strong ingredients overpowering the combination of cinnamon, sugar, molasses, and maple.  But the complex, multi-layered flavors coexist harmoniously and yield a perfect balance of sweet and savory.  The sweet potatoes are roasted first to caramelize their exterior and bring out their inherent earthy sweetness.  Next the liquid is used to baste the sweet potatoes for over half an hour to ensure that they are moist.  Result:  Slammin’.

Ingredients:

2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes or garnet yams, peeled and cut into 1/2–inch rounds

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1 2-inch cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons molasses

1 teaspoon tamari or shoyu

2 tablespoons pure maple syrup

1 heaping tablespoon white or yellow miso

1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon grated lemon zest

6 tablespoons filtered water

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

In a large bowl, toss the yams with 1 tablespoon of the sesame oil.

Spread the sweet potatoes on a parchment-lined or well-greased baking sheet in a single layer and roast for 50 minutes, turning over with a fork after 25 minutes.

Remove the sweet potatoes from the oven and reduce the heat to 375°F.

Place the cinnamon stick at the bottom of a 2-quart baking dish, and add the sweet potatoes in layers.  Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the, molasses, tamari, maple syrup, miso, orange juice, lemon juice, lemon zest, water, and the remaining tablespoon of sesame oil.  Pour over the sweet potatoes.

Bake uncovered, for 30 minutes, thoroughly basting the sweet potatoes every 10 minutes.

For more information on Bryant Terry’s books and food, visit his website, Bryant-terry.com.

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